The Last Domain of Free Expression Is under Siege
"Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four. If that is granted, all else follows."
― George Orwell, 1984
Over the last five years, in the U.S. and across the West, free expression in cyberspace has come under unprecedented assault.
Uniformity of thought (groupthink) is already prevalent in every other corporate-controlled U.S. medium — print, radio, television.
The siege of U.S. cyberspace began in earnest in late 2016 with the defeat of Hillary Clinton at the hands of Donald Trump in the U.S. presidential election — perhaps the greatest electoral upset in American history. Every mainstream media outlet got it dead wrong. On election day, the "paper of record" New York Times gave Clinton an 85% edge. The Washington Post ran a headline that said "a comprehensive average of election forecasts points to a decisive Clinton victory." The Huffington Post estimated a 98% chance of a Clinton win.
Trump, it turns out, won, handing the corporate press a stunning defeat in the information war.
Immediately in the aftermath of the election, Clinton and Co. rolled out the "fake news" narrative. At a Dec 9, 2016 ceremony for departing Sen. Harry Reid, Clinton set the wheels in motion for an unprecedented crackdown on cyber-speech:
It's now clear that so-called 'fake news' can have real world consequences…Lives are at risk. Lives of ordinary people just trying to go about their days, to do their jobs, contribute to their communities... It's imperative that leaders from the private sector and the public sector step up to protect our democracy and innocent lives.
The unspoken intent was clear: to give rhetorical cover to the state to reckon with the digital infosphere outside its control that had cost the DNC the election. Soon after Clinton's Dec. 2016 declaration of war against "fake news," the corporate press, in tandem with Silicon Valley, rolled out the censorship agenda:
If the fact-checking organizations identify a story as fake, it will get flagged as disputed and there will be a link to the corresponding article explaining why. Stories that have been disputed may also appear lower in News Feed.
A censorship bonanza ensued. Countless "fringe" media figures outside the good graces of the ruling class — on the grassroots left and right — have been purged from the web in the intervening five years.
Ultimately, the Mueller Report failed to identify any evidence at all for the "Russia-gate" conspiracy theory that Donald Trump was somehow a Kremlin agent on the Russian payroll.
The false narrative lives on, though. This incisive two-minute compilation of corporate media talking points on the "Russia-gate" conspiracy theory illustrates the lockstep rhetoric of the corporate press to push the narrative
What are the consequences of media power concentrated in the hands of a tiny elite, and where do things go from here?
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If all of this fearmongering sounds oddly familiar and totalitarian, that's because the Communist Party of China (CCP) has been a pioneer in the conquest of cyberspace for decades — under the guise of combatting "misinformation" harmful to national security:
From the CCP's perspective, "Western anti-China forces" are "actively trying to infiltrate China's ideological sphere," threatening China with the spearhead of Westernizing, splitting, and Color Revolutions, for which the blame is often placed upon the influence of the Internet and social media.
Chinese state censorship — along with the other tools of social control it deploys on its own population — is the model that Western governments hope to emulate:
Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau met with criticism for the second time in as many days Friday, after telling a Toronto fundraising crowd that he admired China's 'basic dictatorship.'
The Chinese government operates what has been called the "Great Firewall" — restricting access to information deemed unacceptable by nameless state censorship agents and sending it down the Memory Hole.
The CCP exercises pernicious, ruthless dominance in its own cyberspace behind the Great Firewall. No bit of subversive minutia is too small to ban; it successfully scrubbed images of Winne the Pooh into oblivion after internet activists likened the character to CCP boss Xi Jinping in 2017.
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We Western heirs to the Renaissance and Enlightenment cannot allow the internet to become the plaything of the state in the mold of the Great Firewall, for information to be censored on a whim and distorted and rebranded.
If a population in a free society grows distrustful of its government, as has occurred in the U.S., the onus should be on the state to rebuild trust — not on the population to be herded into Orwellian goodthink via censorship.
Instead of demonizing a large (and growing) portion of the citizenry that no longer has faith in the government to serve its needs, the entity that needs fixing in this scenario is the government, not the people. Free speech is that corrective mechanism.
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The Jan. 6, 2021 "insurrection" in D.C. — which was largely organized on the web via hard-to-track apps like Telegram — gave further ammunition to the corporate state to justify repression of dissident voices:
In the days following the insurrection, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and other major platforms have imposed stricter measures and deployed new rationales for taking action. Besides suspending or permanently banning President Trump, they've also removed content undermining the integrity of the election results.
Corporate-state censorship is increasingly justified on the grounds of amorphous concepts with no legal definition like "dangerous speech" or "hate speech." Without strict legal limits on what can be considered "dangerous" or "hateful," this 21st-century digital book-burning is left to the whims of nameless; faceless bureaucrats; or, even worse, to tech giants' computer algorithms.
Freedom of expression is the birthright of the Western citizen — the bounty of hundreds of years of struggle against authoritarian, censorious states.
The torch of Enlightenment liberty is all but extinguished in the United States in 2021, except in the dark corners of the web. We must relight it.
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